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DEQUASIEBOOKS - THE GREEN FLAME

 

 

BACKGROUND

THE GREEN FLAME is a largely autobiographical account of a classified Government program in which we were making boron-based fuels for use in rockets and jet engines. My own involvement was from 1953 until a few months after the project closed at the end of 1959. When I took the job, I didn't know what I'd be working on or where. After all, that was classified information which I had no "need to know."

The project cost more than a billion dollars in 1991 dollars, and some of the fatal accidents that occurred were extremely personal to me. Yet, I was so steeped in the mind-set of secrecy that I never considered that the story could be publicly told until 1985, 25 years after it ended. And by then I felt as if it absolutely had to be told. For one thing, it is totally contrary to the scientific method to spend a major amount of time and effort on a project and never reveal the full results and conclusions. Even a paleolithic hunter would feel obliged to tell his tribe where he had been and what he had seen. And those who died in the effort had some right to have the circumstances of their death revealed.

The boron fuels had three nasty tendencies, (1) all of them were highly toxic, requiring use of a gas mask for all hands-on operations, (2) most of them were pyrophoric, igniting in a vigorous green flame on contact with air, no spark required, and (3) they formed explosive mixtures with certain other compounds. We lost two of our men and our plant at Malta, NY, discovering one of those explosive combinations. After that, we built our plants in the Niagara Falls, NY, area. The work force in the Niagara Falls area grew to something on the order of 1,000 people and our company represented about half of the manufacturing effort, the other half being conducted at Callery, PA, Lawrence, KS, and Muskogee, OK, by Callery Chemical Co. Many others were involved in research, using materials provided by the manufacturing effort.

In case you're wondering, the gismo depicted on the dust jacket of The Green Flame, as shown above, is a flare stack. A flare stack burns waste gases being vented into the atmosphere, and the flame on this one was frequently green due to the venting of boron hydrides.

One peculiarity of classified Government projects is that it can be hard to tell whether the veil of secrecy has been lifted. Even though the project had been dead 25 years and I was certain that the boron fuels would never see their intended use in rockets or jet aircraft, I needed documentary proof that the information had been declassified. After some digging, I found that the U.S. Air Force had a roll of microfilmed boron fuels documents that I could buy, and it was enough.

Finding a publisher for the book proved more difficult than I had expected. (Unfortunately, that always seems to be the case with me. I must have a bad case of chronic optimism.) One of my fears while writing the book was that someone else might publish the story ahead of me. Thousands of people had worked on the project and any one of them might also be writing it. And yet, I had 85 rejections before someone suggested the American Chemical Society as a publisher. That seemed like a long shot since the book wasn't written as a scholarly text and even contained two chapters on the bachelor life of the times. Still, the ACS accepted and I'll be forever grateful that they did.

The ACS is a non-profit organization. They did an excellent job of presenting The Green Flame to chemists and chemical engineers, but had no interest in pursuing a wider market, so it never appeared in book stores. This was a disappointment to me since I had hoped that it would find a public audience. (Actually, it has found a small public audience in that I still get 2 or 3 inquiries per year about the boron fuels and the availability of the book. And I was the invited author of the Boranes section of the Encyclopedia of 20th-Century Technology, Routledge, 2005, thanks to the book.) I suspect that the conventional publishers considered it too technical for a public audience. I feel certain that it isn't, but if you want to read the original book, you may only find it as an interlibrary loan from your local library or as a second-hand purchase on an internet bookstore such as Amazon.com. In the previous editions of this web site, I presented Chapters 1 through 13. In this edition, I'll provide a synopsis of what has gone before. However, that will not be the last word. I have heard from many old boron fuels comrades over the years and have learned that some of what I thought to be correct in 1991 was a teensy bit off the mark. So, now there will be a postscript to set the record straight. As always, you may print out one copy for your own use, but all rights are reserved and multiple copies or distribution are expressly prohibited.

I still get e-mails seeking copies of The Green Flame (Which I don't have to spare.), and used copies have gotten to $100 each. So I had the book scanned to create a digital file which is now on Amazon.com as an e-book. It will also be on B&N and others by August, 2013.

THE GREEN FLAME

Synopsis of Chapters 1 through 13

Chapter 1 describes my transition from Army life back to the civilian world. So the new job was near Schenectady rather than at Niagara Falls and I'd be working with stuff that was toxic, spontaneously flammable, and potentially explosive. What a challenge! I had dropped into a whole new world and was totally on my own. What a deal!

Chapter 2 deals with the day-to-day operations of the plant; the two most routinely miserable jobs, the comic relief of horseplay, and how to get the best performance from the gas mask.

Chapter 3 describes the chemistry and hazards of making diborane. Each production batch combined 25 pounds of granular lithium hydride, slurried in diethyl ether, and 71.2 pounds of boron trifluoride to produce 14.5 pounds of diborane and leave 81.6 pounds of lithium fluoride to be recovered from the diethyl ether slurry.

This process doesn't produce diborane unless a small amount of diborane is added. The diborane addition was known as a "spike." Failure of the initial spike sometimes created a very hazardous situation in which a repeat spike late in the batch was akin to triggering a bomb.

Chapter 4 describes the pyrolysis process, in which a mixture of diborane and hydrogen gas is very carefully heated to produce pentaborane, decaborane, and a boron hydride waste we called 'yellow solids.'

Chapter 5 describes an effort to alkylate diborane to improve its fuel characteristics. It also describes the switch from kerosene to carbon tetrachloride as our equipment clean-out solvent. Some strange events resulted from this, but were tragically misinterpreted.

Chapter 6 describes the bachelor life among a bunch of guys away from home, short of girl friends and seeking things to do.

Chapter 7 describes the aftermath of the 6/21/55 Malta pilot plant explosion, the many ironies involved, and the cause of the explosion. We were moved to Niagara Falls and given new assignments in building larger plants.

Chapter 8 describes the pilot plant design & construction in Niagara Falls and the high priority given to speed as opposed to cost-saving.

Chapter 9 describes the construction and start-up of the Company Owned Plant (COP plant), which provided HEF-2 desperately needed for engine testing, lists all of the boron fuels plants, describes the peak of optimism present at the cornerstone laying ceremony for the Air Force Plant on 7/9/57, the new diborane production process at the Navy Plant,toxicity, accidents, and the Callery process.

Chapter 10 continues the Chapter 6 description of life among the young bachelors of the boron fuels project. The Niagara River between Niagara Falls and Youngstown fascinated me. Most of us drank too much and Karl's drinking probably was linked to his fatal swim in the Niagara. Then there was Explorer Scout leadership, Atlantic-run salmon fishing, a trip to the Mardi Gras, and flying lessons to fill the time. And, finally, the weddings that ended the bachelor times.

Chapter 11 describes the rapidly changing scene and many miseries involved in recovering decaborane. We went from recovering minor amounts of decaborane from trivial sources to shipping 55-gallon drums of high-purity crystalline decaborane powder to many customers. There were many worrisome incidents and one fatal accident along the way, ending with the closing of our entire boron fuels project.

Chapter 12 describes the many uncertainties involved in government secrecy. Whether or not there was a security man among our engineers. Whether or not there was a saboteur. Whether the project had been declassified enough to write this book. How serious had the air force been about expanding the project?

Chapter 13 describes the closing of the project and the flurry of political hot air on the subject. The fact that General Electric had developed a jet engine capable of meeting Air Force objectives without boron fuels was the most politically comfortable. The fact that boric oxide is a combustion product of the boron fuels and that this seriously fouls jet engine turbines and greatly reduces the thrust of a rocket engine was given scant mention. I believe that boric oxide was the real reason and should have been sufficient reason to end the project years earlier. The chapter ends with some 'war stories'about other chemical industry accidents in Niagara Falls and some insight on doing business with the government.

End - THE GREEN FLAME as it was published in 1991

POSTSCRIPT - BITS & PIECES LEARNED SINCE 1991

  1. The blame for the explosion that destroyed the Malta plant on 6/21/55 (Page 73) - During our work in Niagara Falls, I had frequent cause to visit the lab of a man I'll call "Dr. Gene." This lab did specialized testing such as shock testing to determine if various mixtures were explosive and Tyndal Effect testing to reveal suspended particles in fuel samples. Dr. Gene is the "older man of European origin" (Page 178) who was fired for a security violation. I have come to suspect that he was really fired on suspicion that he may have 'set up' the Malta explosion. His group (a) possessed the shock test equipment, (b) were using carbon tetrachloride to recover decaborane from the Malta kerosene solutions, and (c) requested that Malta switch from kerosene to carbon tetrachloride as the decaborane recovery solvent. Obviously, if they knew that the combination of decaborane and carbon tetrachloride was 'as explosive as nitroglycerine' they never should have requested that change of solvent. Circumstances indicate that they denied knowing that, but the FBI would surely have felt obliged to doubt them. I recall that shortly after the Malta explosion, when many of us were working at desks in a large open office room in Niagara Falls, two guys from that group always spoke together in unnaturally loud voices that could be heard over much of the room. I've since wondered if they weren't speaking for the benefit of real or imagined hidden microphones. In any event, curiosity eventually got the better of me and I wrote to the FBI a couple of times, asking under the Freedom of Information Act whether, indeed, Dr. Gene had been suspected of causing the Malta explosion. What I got were non-answers. The final one said that they were required to respect Dr. Gene's privacy and they couldn't release the information unless I could produce a verified birth date indicating that he was too old to still be among the living. He was at least 20 years older than me, but the proof no longer matters to me. I'm convinced he was the prime suspect, innocent or not.

  2. Peculiar flukes of memory (Pages 98 - 99) - I describe a near-deadly incident that occurred to Will Weber when a fluid he was pouring into a slop drum of acetone ignited. I am absolutely certain that this happened as described. Yet, in a phone conversation with Will in the late 1990s, he said he had no recollection of that incident at all!

  3. Alkylation Of Diborane (Page 123) - I believe that this approach to making boron fuels was a major flop in terms of both quality and yield. In talking to Dr. Warner after the Green Flame was published he said that he was almost fired for refusing a high-ranking request to submit an Olin Mathieson process proposal to investigate this route. He said he regarded that route as a waste of time and money. It was Callery Chemical's core process, but I'm convinced it was a very poor second to Olin's route.

  4. Russia's Boron Fuels (Page 183) - When Russia launched Sputnik, a reputable Hungarian scientist was quoted as saying that boron fuels were used. Baloney! Many years later, I chanced upon an internet advertisement from a Russian Company, Aviabor, which claimed to be the sole supplier of boron hydrides in the Soviet Union. So I sent an e-mail to Aviabor, stating that I had been an engineer on the U.S. boron fuels project and asking if the U.S.S.R. had had a similar program. The answer was yes, they had such a program because reliable sources told them that we did! If you don't realize how hilarious that answer was, go see the movie, "The Mouse That Roared." Not only had we conned ourselves, we had conned the Russians as well!

  5. Resurrected Decaborane (Page 203) - At the end of the project and at the time of publication of the Green Flame, I believed that the decaborane we had recovered at great risk had been taken out to Lake Ontario and burned as junk. Dr. Frankel had told me in 1959 that he had discussed the decaborane inventory with George A. Seigleman, Director of Liquid Fuels, and they agreed that it was a fire hazard that nobody wanted and should be destroyed. Then, after Dr. Frankel sent it to Lake Ontario for burning, he mentioned it again to Mr. Seigleman and Mr. Seigleman seemed not to recall their previous conversation. This had Dr. Frankel worried that he might be accused of destroying something of value. Fast forward to 1994 when I was invited to Pittsburgh to give a talk on the boron fuels project. This also got me a tour of the Callery Chemical Co. plant in Callery, PA. There, I was told that they had received our decaborane and used it as a stockpile to fill orders for a number of years. On the one hand, I am very happy that the stuff we risked a great deal to purify did not go to waste. On the other hand, I will always wonder about its route to Callery. My years in government secrecy left me believing that anything too logical to be false must be true and that anything too bizarre to be fiction must also be true. So, was the route very routine and logical, or was it something very extraordinary?

  6. Fluorinated Oxidizers (Page 194) - Okay, if boron fuels were burned with fluorine instead of oxygen, the boric oxide would be replaced with boron trifluoride or something similar. This would make a huge difference in jet and rocket engines because boron fluorides would be gases, adding to the thrust; not solid boric oxide, which was highly undesireable as an exhaust component. However, I thought that fluorine was far too dangerous and toxic to use as an oxidizer. The thing I discovered many years later, was that one of my boron fuels friends later worked for another company that was actively working on a government project to develop fluorinated oxidizers that might be suitable for use with boron fuels. Okay, I should have known that there would be one or more efforts along that line, even if I hadn't heard it from the horse's mouth.

  7. The Malta Rocket Test Station (Page 204) - This site remains a research center, housing a number of high-tech companies with major encouragement from New York State. Nano Tech & Microcircuits! As of 2008, AMD is committed to build a huge new microcircuits plant at our old Luther Forest site. The Fuel of the Future (FOF) is forgotten in a new field of dreams.

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